Last updated on 2011.07.11
Congresswoman Kristi Noem is in the bug-beset Black Hills today. She's convening a field meeting of her House Natural Resources subcommittee to discuss the pine beetle epidemic. We've allowed trees to grow unnaturally thick in the Hills, making an easy smorgasbord for pine beetles, which turn great swaths of forest from green to rust. According to Black Hills National Forest supervisor Craig A. Bobzien (who testifies before Reps. Noem, Lummis, and Bishop today at 11:30 MDT at the Rafter J Bar Ranch near Hill City), pine beetles infest trees on a third of the 1.2 million national forest acres, and another third remains at risk.
Also slated to testify today are South Dakota state foresters Ray Sowers and Nort Johnson, meeting host and campground owner Todd George, lumber exec Jim Neiman, and medical exec and Hill City landowner James Scherrer.
All six of the men chosen to testify at today's hearing bring relevant knowledge and personal experience to the pine beetle issue. It is worth noting that among the non-governmental speakers at today's meeting, Noem and her colleagues will hear only from the business and landowner side and not from any representatives of environmental groups.
Noem will hear a lot of what she wants to hear: paeans to private enterprise and criticism of bumbling bureaucracy. Neiman will cite Teddy Roosevelt's claim that the overarching aim of forest policy is not natural beauty or wild animals but "the making of prosperous homes." Scherrer will blame some "small minority of our citizens, most of whom are not even residents of the Black Hills, [who] have used the court system, political manipulation, and our own over bloated bureaucracy" for blocking the fight against pine beetles.
But Noem will also face the usual challenge of playing up her small government cred while responding positively to calls for more federal spending in South Dakota's interest. Neiman will complain that the Black Hills National Forest has not received the full funding it requested. He will call for additional funds for proactive thinning and continued disbursements from the federal forest funds to counties for schools and roads.
In his complaint about outsiders blocking logging, Scherrer notes with dismay that "very squeaky wheels get the grease." In that spirit, it is worth noting that Scherrer was a pretty squeaky wheel in the Noem campaign last year. He put $4500 into Kristi Noem's campaign kitty last year. (In some strange campaign finance chess, in the 2008 cycle, Scherrer gave $2000 to the Republican National Committee, $1098 to Tim Johnson, $2000 to New York Democrat Charles Rangel, and $2000 to Michigan Democrat John Dingell.)
Jim Neiman has also been a frequent flyer in federal campaign finance filings. He has given significant amounts to Tom Daschle, John Thune, Tim Johnson, the National Republican Congressional Committee, the Wyoming Republican Party, and, during last year's campaign, $2000 to Stephanie Herseth Sandlin. Just three months after his investment in Herseth Sandlin went belly up, Neiman sent Congresswoman Kristi Noem $1000. Neiman has made past appearances before Congressional committees on the pine beetle issue (see House Ag testimony in 2009, 2010).
Individuals testifying to the committee are required to file a disclosure form listing federal contracts and grants they've received from the relevant agencies. But there is no explicit question on that form about money that's gone the other direction, from testifiers to members of Congress listening to that testimony.
I do not question the need for continued action by the National Forest Service to stop the spread of the pine beetle. I do find it interesting that, out of a hundred thousand regular citizens who live and work in the Black Hills, two out of three non-government employees testifying have given big money to the woman chairing the hearing.
Update 2011.07.11 09:00 CDT: Kevin Woster covers the hearing, including disgruntlement from locals that only the pre-selected witnesses got to speak. No Q&A, no comment allowed from the 250 or so folks who attended the unusual open-air hearing, just testimony from the folks Noem wanted to hear.